The reboot of Star Trek in 2009 was a risky move for Paramount. However, it paid off, reinvigorating the franchise that had died with the poorly performing film Star Trek: Nemesis in 2002. J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek became one of the biggest hits of that summer and introduced a whole new generation to the classic franchise.
Abrams was not a Star Trek fan before working on the film (and arguably even less of one after making the movie), but that didn’t stop him and his production team from making a solid science fiction update. Throughout the commentary with his writers and producers, recorded only a month after Star Trek came out in 2009, it’s clear that the Star Wars films had a greater impact on the production team’s childhood. Maybe the search for a Luke Skywalker in the character of James T. Kirk was what made the film work so well.
Star Trek (2009)
Commentators: J.J. Abrams (director and producer), Bryan Burk (executive producer), Alex Kurtzman (writer and executive producer), Damon Lindelof (producer), Roberto Orci (writer and executive producer)
1. The movie originally opened with parallel lives of Kirk and Spock, showing both characters’ births and growing up as young men. The birth of Spock was dropped in order to make Kirk’s birth aboard the U.S.S. Kelvin a pre-credit action sequence. It was also removed because Spock is actually much older than Kirk, and they would not have been born at the same time (though they were both presented as boys at the same time).
2. The U.S.S. Kelvin was not named for the mathematical physicist and engineer, Lord Kelvin, who first calculated absolute zero and is the namesake of the Kelvin temperature scale. Instead, it is named after J.J. Abrams’ grandfather, Harry Kelvin, with the ship’s registry number (NCC-0514) as his birth date.
3. Chris Hemsworth, who is now famous for playing Thor in Marvel’s franchise, was cast as Kirk’s father partly for his resemblance to Chris Pine. A relative unknown at the time of this commentary’s recording, he is fleetingly referenced by Abrams: “The actor that we cast looks enough like Chris Pine.”
4. Originally Abrams wanted the space scenes to be silent because there is no sound in space. However, upon watching early assemble edits of these scenes, they felt incomplete without sound.
5. At one point, the plan was to have infant James Kirk to be beamed out of his mother’s body to save him, ultimately killing her in the process. However, the production team decided to save the first beaming incident for later in the film.
6. Majel Barrett Roddenberry, the widow of Gene Roddenberry, provided the voice for the ship’s computer as she has for all of the Star Trek films and television shows. This was her last appearance before her death in December 2008. Additional voice cameos include Abrams as the voice of the police officer who arrests the young Jim Kirk, and Wil Wheaton as the voice of Nero’s computer on his Romulan ship.
7. Multiple cameos of the crew’s friends and family can be seen throughout the film, including Abrams’ father and step-father at the bar when Kirk meets Uhura, Zachary Quinto’s brother as the first Romulan to see Kirk and Spock beam onto Nero’s ship, and writer/producer Akiva Goldsman as a Vulcan councilman opposite Sarek.
8. The team’s love of Star Wars is apparent throughout the commentary, in particular when Lindelof calls the shot of Kirk looking at Starfleet from afar as “our Tatooine moment,” referencing the moment in Star Wars where Luke looks out at the twin suns of his homeworld.
9. On the day of shooting, Karl Urban (Dr. McCoy) came up with the line, “All I got left is my bones.”
10. Nero’s 25-year absence from the story is explained in a deleted storyline. Originally, the Kelvin’s collision with the ship knocked it into the Klingon neutral zone, and Nero was captured and tortured for 25 years. During his incarceration, Nero calculated when Spock Prime would emerge through the wormhole, and he coordinated a prison break in order to be free to intercept the ship.
11. Another deleted subplot involved Rachel Nichols’ character of the green Orion girl planting the virus into the computer to allow Kirk to cheat on the Kobayashi Maru test. Later, when she is seen in the background of Kirk’s disciplinary hearing, she’s playing angry because she is upset that Kirk used her for that purpose.
12. Tyler Perry had never been on anyone else’s set when he worked as an actor on Star Trek. At one point, he was unhappy with his line delivery and yelled, “Cut!” Then he realized that he wasn’t the director and immediately apologized to Abrams.
13. The band of light that falls on Bruce Greenwood’s eyes when he first sits down in the captain’s chair is a nod to the sexy mood lighting from the original series.
14. To help bring a 2009 version of the iconic sounds from the original series into the film, the production hired Ben Burtt, who is most famous for his sound design on the Star Wars films. The first thing Burtt did when he came to work on the film was to hang up an official Star Trek certificate he had since he was a child.
15. Most of the shots of the bowels of the ship were shot at a Budweiser plant. The giant tanks seen in several scenes, in particularly when Kirk runs down to fetch Uhura, were giant beer vats.
16. The monster that attacks Kirk on the ice when he is exiled after the Enterprise’s first confrontation with Nero was designed by Neville Page, who also designed the Cloverfield monster.
17. When the Enterprise emerges from the cloud in front of Saturn, the rings of the planet make a hidden Starfleet logo in space.
18. The words to the choral elements of the music that plays during the destruction of Nero’s ship when it is torn apart by the singularity are the names of composer Michael Giacchino’s pets.
19. Quinto’s fingers had to be glued together in order for him to make the Vulcan hand symbol to Leonard Nimoy in their scene because he was unable to make the symbol with his right hand.
20. The production team discussed including a post-credit sequence which featured the Botany Bay, but they decided against it. “It would tie our hands for the sequel,” Lindelof admits.
Best in Commentary
- Abrams: “The first day that I shot on this set, I literally just broke out in a sweat because I was surrounded by all these bald dudes with face tattoos and pointy ears and the wardrobe. I was so afraid it was going to look insanely stupid.” (regarding the introductory scene with the Romulans)
- Burk: “You may notice all these flares.” Abrams: “There are a few shots where they are preposterous.”
- Lindelof: “This was the gutsiest thing that we did. Blowing up Vulcan was nothing compared to saying Spock and Uhura are in love with each other and are having this incredibly intimate relationship.”
- Lindelof: “Do Vulcan’s breastfeed?”
Part of the problem with commentaries that feature multiple commentators is that they either tend to be monopolized by one person or turn into a chat sessions with less raw and interesting information. This commentary bounces back and forth between those two setting. At least when the conversation is lopsided, we have either Abrams or Lindelof giving some decent insight.
Unfortunately, a lot of time is spent on the group gushing over the actors and the nuances of their performances. Of particular interest in this commentary is their focus on Zoe Saldana, who is the only female in the main cast, and everyone seems smitten with her. That leaves us with a lot of sighs and overblown compliments on her whenever she’s on screen. Another focus that gets old quickly (though is a bit more understandable in the film’s context) is the renumerations about Leonard Nimoy’s legacy as Spock and how grateful the production team was to have him involved in the film.
Listening to the commentary now with several years gone by makes the experience even more interesting, though, mainly because Abrams is set to direct the next Star Wars movie. Knowing he was not a fan of Star Trek initially (evidenced by his and others’ surprising lack of casual knowledge of the franchise beyond the film during the commentary) makes me wonder if the Star Wars fanboy in him might do to that franchise.